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Education: Board of Education members concerned with violence at CEP

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In the wake of a recent City Paper report about mounting concerns at a privately run alternative school on the North Side, school-board member Mark Brentley Sr. asked his colleagues at a Feb. 27 meeting to investigate Clayton Academy and, perhaps, terminate the district's contract with the company running it.

"We can no longer sit here knowing there are issues," he said. "We have to move on it before somebody gets seriously hurt."

Since September, Community Education Partners (CEP), a Nashville-based alternative-education company, has accepted roughly 250 of the most behaviorally challenging students from the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Just over halfway through the alternative school's first year, city police have reported more than 35 incidents at the school since September, roughly two dozen of which have been aggravated assaults [See "School of Hard Knocks" Feb. 14].

Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and other district administrators say those problems are "bumps in the road." But some CEP students and their families paint a grimmer picture.

The school is a "war zone," says 57-year-old Rene Seymore, an East Liberty grandmother. While she says her 17-year-old granddaughter needs special attention for her behavioral problems, Seymore doesn't think "throwing her into the lion's den" at CEP is the answer.

"I went there one morning, and the kids were at the receptionists' desk answering the phones, and there was no security or personnel around," Seymore says. "The kids were just doing whatever they wanted to do."

"The kids are using the school as a fighting ground," agrees Dearia Perkins, a North Side mother of a 14-year-old and the sister of a 15-year-old, both at CEP. "It's like a prison -- if you don't know how to fight, you shouldn't really be there."

Perkins says her daughter has been charged with aggravated assault while at CEP, stemming from a cafeteria brawl where she hit a teacher with a milk bottle.

"That school makes you mean because you have to fight every day," says Perkins, who during an interview at her home answered a phone call from her daughter at the school, complaining about another girl harassing her. "My daughter has to worry about watching her back every day." As a result, "My daughter will come home and say, ‘I don't feel like I'm learning anything.' When she gets out of school, is she going to know what she needs to know?"

Some board members have the same question.

"I haven't seen any real information about what's going on there," says board member Jean Fink, who voted against the district's contract with CEP last January. "How are they helping our kids?"

"I definitely think there should be discussion or some kind of update," agrees board member Randall Taylor, an advocate of alternative education who voted in favor of the district's contract with the private company. "I have some concerns."

Those concerns deepened after reports last month that a CEP teacher in Philadelphia was on the city police department's list of most-wanted fugitive criminals. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, teacher Arnesx Honore has been teaching since 2003, but has been facing charges of rape and other offenses since 2006. Honore was recently arrested and released upon posting bail, but he has yet to be tried for the charges.

"If I ever found out that they hired a person ... like that who was teaching our kids, they'd be out of here so fast," Fink says. "I'd go over and help them pack."

Although Brentley and Fink seldom agree on school-district business, both are concerned enough about CEP to consider dissolving the school's contract.

If there is no progress by the end of the year, "I would ask the administration in a heartbeat to terminate it," Fink says.

"We now know it's not working," says Brentley, who wants the district look into other options for handling troubled students. "The kids are suffering. They deserve a chance at an education."

Roosevelt says the administration is on top of the situation.

"We're all over it," he says, adding that his administration is not excusing the school's problems. Generally, he says, new schools, especially alternative schools, take time showing signs of improvement.

Roosevelt says administrators visit CEP on a daily basis, and the district recently added more security to help address fighting and other behavioral issues. He adds that overall, reviews of CEP are mixed.

"We have parents and students there who love it," Roosevelt says, "and we have parents and students there who hate it."

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